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A Tractate on Japanese Aesthetics

A Tractate on Japanese Aesthetics

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A Tractate on Japanese Aesthetics

4.5/5 (4 évaluations)
60 pages
50 minutes
Jul 1, 2007


This provocative book is a tractate—a treatise—on beauty in Japanese art, written in the manner of a zuihitsu, a free-ranging assortment of ideas that “follow the brush” wherever it leads. Donald Richie looks at how perceptual values in Japan were drawn from raw nature and then modified by elegant expressions of class and taste. He explains aesthetic concepts like wabi, sabi, aware, and yugen, and ponders their relevance in art and cinema today.

Donald Richie is the foremost explorer of Japanese culture in English, and this work is the culmination of sixty years of observing and writing from his home in Tokyo.

Jul 1, 2007

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A Tractate on Japanese Aesthetics - Donald Richie





Stone Bridge Press • Berkeley, California

Published by

Stone Bridge Press

P.O. Box 8208

Berkeley, CA 94707

TEL 510-524-8732



© 2007 Donald Richie.

All rights reserved.

No part of this book may be reproduced in any form without permission from the publisher.


Richie, Donald, 1924–

A tractate on Japanese aesthetics / Donald Richie.

p. cm.

Includes bibliographical references.

ISBN 978-1-933330-23-5 (pbk.)

1. Aesthetics—Japan. I. Title.

BH221.J3R53 2007




J. Thomas Rimer

"Art is the imposing of a pattern on

experience and our aesthetic enjoyment

is recognition of the pattern."


Dialogues (1954)

10 June 1943


IN WRITING ABOUT traditional Asian aesthetics, the conventions of a Western discourse—order, logical progression, symmetry—impose upon the subject an aspect that does not belong to it. Among other ideas, Eastern aesthetics suggests that ordered structure contrives, that logical exposition falsifies, and that linear, consecutive argument eventually limits.

As the aesthetician Itoh Teiji has stated regarding the difficulties that Japanese experience in defining aesthetics: The dilemma we face is that our grasp is intuitive and perceptual rather than rational and logical. Aesthetic enjoyment recognizes artistic patterns, but such patterns cannot be too rigid or too circumscribed.

Most likely to succeed in defining Japanese aesthetics is a net of associations composed of listings or jottings, connected intuitively, that fills in a background and renders the subject visible. Hence the Japanese uses for juxtaposition, for assembling, for bricolage.

In any event, for any consideration of aesthetics, East or West, the quality of apprehension is sensibility—an awareness, a consciousness, a sensitivity. It is alive and often unfriendly to interpretation, and if it is to be pinned to the page, then feints and indirections are some of the means.

We thus should not strive for logical conclusions. Rather, we ought to define those perceptions and variances of aesthetic appreciation through a style that conveys something of the very uncertainty of their description.

Many Japanese writers prize a quality of indecision in the structure of their work. And something too logical, too symmetrical is successfully avoided when writers ignore the suppositions of the questions asked of them. It is then not the assumptions of the writer’s controlling mind that are followed but, as the Japanese phrase it, the brush itself.

Zuihitsu, the Japanese word we might translate as essay, implies just that—following the brush, allowing it to lead. The structure is the multiplicity of strokes that make up the aesthetic quality, one which they imply and which we infer.

In this book I have sought to approximate this neglect of logical method, this dismissal of linear structure, and both in the text and in its placement on the page I have attempted to give some idea of the progression of a zuihitsu.


Tokyo, 2007


AESTHETICS IS THAT branch of philosophy defining beauty and the beautiful, how it can be recognized, ascertained, judged.

In the West the term was first used in 1750 to describe a science of sensuous knowledge. Its goal was beauty, in contrast with logic, whose goal was truth. Based upon dichotomies (beauty/truth, aesthetics/logic) the definition was elaborated into a multi-faceted concept assuming that opposites and alternates lead to an aesthetic result. The conjectures and conclusions were those of eighteenth-century Europe but are still common today.

There are, however, different criteria at different times in different cultures. Many in Asia, for example, do not subscribe to general dichotomies in expressing thought. Japan makes much less of the body/mind, self/group formation, with often marked consequences. Here we would notice that what we would call Japanese aesthetics (in contrast to Western aesthetics) is more concerned with process than with product, with the actual construction of a self than with self-expression.


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  • (4/5)
    As Richie explains in his preface, he has deliberately chosen to write A Tractate on Japanese Aesthetics as a zuihitsu , the form in which many influential Japanese chose to address aesthetic matters. Such an essay is not logically organized, not linear, not deductive. The author is supposed to "follow the brush" (I suppose we must say follow the pen, though, now, are we to follow the keyboard?), follow his thoughts as they arise. To heighten this, for him necessary, nonlinearity, he juxtaposes alongside the main text further texts which enrich the reader's understanding but which he apparently felt that he could not work into the main text in a more organic manner. I had no problem with this approach and regretted only that the book is so short. I wish Richie had further developed his sketch of how certain central aesthetic terms had evolved through time and had provided more of his aptly chosen examples to illustrate this evolution. I wish he had submitted the more secondary terms, whose existence he merely indicated, to the fuller treatment accorded to the primary terms. I further wish he had followed up the deliciously suggestive analogies between Japanese and Western aesthetics he so briefly drew. Please, sir, may I have more?
  • (4/5)
    Six-word review: Deft, spare elucidation for Western audience.Extended review:For a Westerner, the aesthetic principles encountered in Japanese paintings, poetry, gardens, and other art forms can be elusive and mystifying. The late Donald Richie was an expert on Japanese culture (and movies in particular) and a gifted explainer. In this short work he conveys his understanding, through both form and content, about as well as I think it can be done for a reader who has not been an ardent lifelong student of the subject.Without any facetiousness at all, I'll say that I think that after reading it three or four more times I may be able to tell you something about what it says.Meanwhile, much as I've felt after hearing a dharma talk at the zendo, I can't tell you exactly what he said, but I think I understand something a little better.My rating of this book means nothing at all. The book is a bound essay of 70 small pages plus glossary and bibliography. And I'm sure that, true to its subject matter, it uses as many strokes as it needs and no more. But the limitations of my scale prevent me from recognizing it on its merits alongside works ten times the length. Consider this a fault of my ratings or of ratings in general and not of the book.
  • (5/5)
    Informative and useful revelation. One can catch the feeling of art as life